I read a bunch of Virago Modern Classics this year, for a thing. All of them were interesting in various ways, and many were great, but the one that took the top of my head off was Vera, by Elizabeth von Arnim, from 1921.
Elizabeth von Arnim had one of those lives: H. G. Wells was her lover; Katherine Mansfield was her cousin; E. M. Forster was her children’s tutor; Bertrand Russell was her brother-in-law. She was successful and prolific, and when she died in 1941 her obituary in the Times said that everything she wrote “was interpenetrated by her pervasive sense of fun.” I am here to tell you that this is false, and that Vera, although very funny in places, is mostly interpenetrated by the author’s terrible knowledge of mental torture and cruelty.
The story will sound familiar to anyone conversant with the Virago genre: a naive girl is swept off her feet by a charming widower, only to discover that marriage to him is not what she expected. (The book is named for the late wife who shadows their household — a thread that prefigures the better-known Rebecca.) What’s less familiar is the virtuosic precision of von Arnim’s tone, at once satirical and tragic even as the book builds into a psychological horror story.
I should be clear about that last part: this book terrified me. And yet it packs its sinister payload into an impeccably ordinary literary-realist novel, with character development and social observation and sharp dialogue. As I read it, on an airplane flight, I was at first charmed and entertained and then increasingly aghast, and when I finished the world around me seemed like an insubstantial lie.
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